Why after 2 years, 9 months and 13 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group?

Why after 2 years, 9 months and 13 days have Wirral Council U-turned on refusing a FOI request for minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group?

                                                   

ICO Information Commissioner's Office logo
ICO Information Commissioner’s Office logo

Before I start this epic tale, I would just like to point out that someone has started a petition demanding an apology from the Labour administration at Wirral Council for their answer at the last Council meeting about information requests and their poor record on FOI requests.

A long time ago (29th March 2013), I made this FOI request for the minutes of meetings that happen behind closed doors (not public meetings) for committees that councillors sit on. Part of this request (part 26) was for minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group.

I think it is better to provide a chronology at this stage as to how this part of the request went (references are to this part of the request).

29th March 2013 FOI request made.
29th April 2013 Internal review requested due to lack of reply.
30th April 2013 Internal review sent by Wirral Council. Request refused on cost grounds (section 12), but offer made to send minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group.
30th April 2013 Clarification over meaning of request sent/internal review as response on 30th April 2013 was first response.
30th July 2013 Internal review changes reason from cost grounds (section 12) to vexatious or repeated request (section 14).
14th August 2013 Decision appealed to Information Commissioner’s Office.
19th June 2014 Wirral Council amends reason for refusal from vexatious or repeated request (section 14) to cost grounds (section 12).
8th September 2014 ICO issue decision notice FS50509081. Decision notice overturns cost grounds (section 12) reason, finds Wirral Council failed to provide advice and assistance (section 16) and hasn’t responded to request within 20 days (section 10(1)). Wirral Council given 35 days to provide information or different reason.
4th November 2014 FOI request for minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group refused on section 40 (personal data) grounds.
12th November 2014 Internal review of 4th November 2014 decision requested.
30th April 2015 After ICO intervention Wirral Council replies. Wirral Council refuses internal review on section 14 (vexatious or repeated request) grounds.
Unknown date Decision appealed to ICO.
29th July 2015 ICO issued second decision notice (FS50569254). Decision notice overturns section 14 (vexatious or repeated request) reason for all of request except adoption/fostering panel part. Finds Wirral Council have breached section 10 (again).
3rd September 2015 Wirral Council respond to decision notice FS50569254. Minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group now refused on section 36 (prejudice to effective conduct of public affairs) and section 40 (personal data).
7th September 2015 Decision appealed to Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
11th January 2016 Wirral Council supply minutes of Safeguarding Reference Group held on 19th April 2011.

Wouldn’t it have just been easier (as they made the offer to send the minutes of the Safeguarding Reference Group in April 2013) to supply these minutes then? How much officer time was wasted in refusing six pages of minutes on a committee that 7 councillors sat on and at least 5 senior managers (although one wasn’t present for the meeting).

The sixteen page serious case review about Child A, Child B, Child C & Child D referred to in the minutes dated 6th April 2011 can be found on Wirral Council’s website.

Three of the 7 councillors present are no longer councillors and at least three of the senior managers have either gone into early retirement or left Wirral Council.

There are 4 parts in the six pages of minutes where names have been blacked out. Did it really take 2 years, 9 months and nearly a fortnight to do this?

What was the point in spending over 2 years and 9 months refusing this request? The minutes they’ve supplied refer to a further meeting on the 20th July 2011 so although this is welcome, they may not be the right ones! I requested the minutes of the meeting immediately before my request on the 29th March 2013. Is the implication that the incoming minority Labour administration in 2011 scrapped the Safeguarding Reference Group (which was re-established on the 15th December 2014)? I’m not sure!

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EXCLUSIVE: 10 more invoices paid by Wirral Council including £3,203.88 for budget setting and £15,667.25 for a special guardianship order

EXCLUSIVE: 10 more invoices paid by Wirral Council including £3,203.88 for budget setting and £15,667.25 for a special guardianship order

EXCLUSIVE: 10 more invoices paid by Wirral Council including £3,203.88 for budget setting and £15,667.25 for a special guardianship order

                                                           

Below this are ten invoices paid for by Wirral Council during the 2013/14 financial year. The first is for £15,276.96 from Eversheds for the ever cryptic “governance and employment issues”. As it’s paid for by Wirral Council’s HR department it’ll be for employment issues and the Wirral Council reference is down as “Jim Wilkie”. This in itself is a bit odd as it’s for work done in February 2013, as Jim Wilkie retired on the 7th June 2012.

Next is an invoice from Eversheds, but for £3,203.88 for “Budget setting”. Again this is odd as the Wirral Council reference is down as “Bill Norman” and it is for work done in February 2013. Bill Norman however was made redundant by Wirral Council on the 30th September 2012 (through a compromise contract costing Wirral Council £151,416). So Bill Norman wouldn’t have had anything to do with the setting of the budget in February 2013.

The third and fourth invoices are from Weightmans for £4,976.64 & £4,482. I think this are for legal advice about Birkenhead regeneration connected to the plans that Wirral Council’s Cabinet recently agreed to consult on involving Neptune Developments Limited.

Moving to another regeneration project, the fifth invoice is for £8,133.90 for legal advice around a section 106 agreement connected to the Wirral Waters planning application. I’m puzzled about why this invoice was sent directly to Peel and the confusing VAT which was added to the total amount, then taken off it!

Invoice six is another Weightmans invoice for £1,668 for EU procurement advice. The next invoice is from Eversheds and is for £1,720.68 of employment advice. Eversheds also submitted another invoice for £4,811.74 for advice in March 2013 on “governance and employment issues“. As the HR department paid the invoice I think it can safely be assumed it was for an employment issue.

The ninth invoice from Seatons Solicitors is for work on a special guardianship order and is for £15,667.25. The last invoice for £1,660.80 is from DMM Psychology Limited for a cognitive functioning report and psychological reports (although this is for a quarter of the total amount as its being split four ways).

Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £15276.96 15th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £15276.96 15th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £3203.88 15th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £3203.88 15th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4976.64 27th Match 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4976.64 27th Match 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4482 2nd April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £4482 2nd April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £8133.90 15th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £8133.90 15th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £1668 28th February 2013
Wirral Council invoice Weightmans £1668 28th February 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £1720.68 5th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £1720.68 5th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £4811.74 8th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Eversheds £4811.74 8th April 2013
Wirral Council invoice Seatons £15667.65 25th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice Seatons £15667.65 25th March 2013
Wirral Council invoice DMM Psychology Ltd £6643.20 8th May 2013
Wirral Council invoice DMM Psychology Ltd £6643.20 8th May 2013

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A Town Hall Mystery: The Riddle of £32,074.98 spent on legal advice for employee who had already retired

A Town Hall Mystery: The Riddle of £32,074.98 spent on legal advice for employee who had already retired

The mysteries of Wirral Council’s legal invoices deepen and leave me scratching my head trying to unlock their puzzles. Two pages are particularly perplexing to me, so maybe one of my readers could help enlighten me with an illuminating comment or two?

First the background, as many readers of this blog will know Jim Wilkie retired as Chief Executive of Wirral Council last year on the 7th June 2012.

The puzzle comes first in the form of this invoice for £28,422.44 from Eversheds for “Advice on governance and employment issues” and “Professional fees in conjunction with advising you on the above matter Period of Invoice 11 June 2012 to 31 July 2012 Your ref: Jim Wilkie”

How could they be advising Jim Wilkie on governance and employment issues as he no longer worked for Wirral Council? He’d retired!

Then as many readers of this blog know, Graham Burgess became Chief Executive/Head of Paid Service of Wirral Council on July 16th starting full-time in the September of that year.

However there’s a further invoice from Eversheds this time for £3,652.54 for the period 4th December to 28th December 2012 for “advice on governance and employment issues” and “Professional fees in connection with advising you on the above matter” again with a reference of “Jim Wilkie”.

Judging by this post on Wirral Leaks which has a copy of the media statement about the suspension of Dave Green ending it would appear as the dates match to be advice provided to Graham Burgess about Dave Green’s suspension and obviously not to Jim Wilkie.

This still leaves the question of who Frances Woodhead of Eversheds thought she was advising on governance and employment issues over the period of the first invoice? Based on the dates it can’t have been Jim Wilkie (as he’d retired days before the period covered by the invoice) and it can’t have been Graham Burgess as he was only made Chief Executive in the last two weeks of the seven week period covered by the invoice). So who was it that needed such expensive advice costing over £28,000?

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Employment and Appointments Committee (Wirral Council) 7/6/2012 Item 12: Early Retirement Request (Jim Wilkie, Chief Executive)

Committee:
Cllr Paul Doughty (Chair)
Cllr George Davies
Cllr Adrian Jones
Cllr Phil Davies
Cllr Ann McLachlan
Cllr Jeff Green (Conservative Spokesperson)
Cllr Lesley Rennie
Cllr Peter Kearney
Cllr Phil Gilchrist deputy for Cllr Mark Johnston (Lib Dem Spokesperson)

In attendance:
Cllr Tom Harney
Chris Hyams
Bill Norman
Various officers
+public + press

Ian Coleman left the room whilst this item was discussed having declared an interest in it.

The committee voted 6:3 to approve the early retirement request of Jim Wilkie, Chief Executive. He has (unless the item is called in or judicially reviewed) retired as of the 7th June 2012.

The voting was as follows (on whether to grant Early Retirement) was 6:3 and passed. An earlier Conservative amendment was lost 3:6:-

For Early Retirement (6)

Cllr Paul Doughty (Lab)

Cllr Phil Davies (Lab)

Cllr Adrian Jones (Lab)

Cllr George Davies (Lab)

Cllr Ann McLachlan (Lab)

Cllr Phil Gilchrist (Lib Dem) deputising for Cllr Mark Johnston (Lib Dem)

Against Early Retirement (3)

Cllr Jeff Green (Con)

Cllr Lesley Rennie (Con)

Cllr Peter Kearney (Con)

=============================================================================
Conservative amendment (LOST 3 (Conservative (3)): 6 (Labour (5)) + (Lib Dem (1)))

Moved by Cllr Jeff Green (Spokesperson)
Seconded by Cllr Lesley Rennie

This Committee notes:

(1) the contribution and service that Mr. Wilkie has given to the people of Wirral over the last 23 years.

(2) the decision on Mr. Wilkie, advised by the Director of Finance and the Director of Law, to allow two members of staff to leave under compromise agreements, less than 1 working day prior to the publication of the AKA report without bringing any potential disciplinary issues to the attention of this Committee.

(3) the queries raised by myself as Leader of the Conservative Group and subsequently as Leader of the Council in response to the report of Mr. Wilkie: Agenda Item 15: Interim Management Arrangements at the meeting held on 29th September 2011 remain unanswered.

(4) that if his retirement was to go ahead these matters may remain secret and unanswered.

Therefore this Committee believes that until these matters are adequately reported to this Committee and Members have had the opportunity to express a view it is clearly inappropriate to approve the extra cost and request for Early Voluntary Retirement from Mr. Wilkie.
==========================================================================================================
Labour recommendation (CARRIED 6 (Labour (5)) + (Lib Dem (1)) :3 (Conservative (3)))
PROPOSED: Cllr Phil Davies
SECONDED: Cllr Ann McLachlan

That the Employment and Appointments Committee approve the following;

The Early Voluntary retirement of Mr Wilkie on the 7 June 2012 and the release of his pension on the grounds of efficiency of the service.

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Related story by Liam Murphy, Liverpool Echo: Wirral Tories oppose council chief executive’s early retirement

Council Annual Meeting Part 2 21/5/12 Senior Management Changes

Also agreed on Monday were the following changes because Jim Wilkie (Chief Executive) is still ill and absent from work.

Ian Coleman is Deputy Chief Executive/Acting Chief Executive in Jim’s absence/Director of Finance.
David Taylor-Smith is Acting Chief Finance Officer while Ian Coleman is Acting Chief Executive.
Tom Sault is Acting Deputy Chief Finance Officer while Ian Coleman is Acting Chief Executive.

The committee places and outside body places have been carved up between the three parties in the proportion of seats they hold. The representation on many outside bodies, which mean councillors from Wirral Council receive greater allowances (Merseytravel, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority) now are just made up of Labour and Conservative councillors.